JR Group moves Transit IC goalposts for easier cross region commuting (Updated)

Traffic News photo of JR Central Numazu Station plastered with ‘TOICA cards cannot travel beyond Atami in the Suica region’ warning signs

One glaring weakness of Japanese Transit IC cards is the fare region wall. There’s a Japanese word for it, ‘matagaru’ which means through passage without dismounting…as in dismount in the middle of a journey and pay full fare in cash at the gate because the transit IC fare region is different from the entry station. Suica for example only works for transit in the Suica/PASMO region, users cannot travel across 2 different regions. This means Suica users traveling into the JR Central TOICA area or vice versa have 2 choices: (1) paper tickets for the whole trip, (2) buy a paper exit ticket with Suica at the exit gate fare adjustment kiosk. This is the way it has worked for all cross region transit.

This is very inconvenient for Shinkansen commuters who live in the Numazu~Mishima JR Central region and commute into the Suica/PASMO Tokyo region. Suica and TOICA commuter passes are worthless, old fashioned mag strip commuter passes are the only option. A similar situation exists for cross region commuters in the TOICA~ICOCA regions. Fortunately, the JR Group companies (JR East, JR Central, JR West) are working to ease this problem and have new ‘matagaru’ cross region commuter pass service starting March 13. I posted about this development earlier, but it’s worth explaining again in more detail and covering the limitations.

Cross Region Transit
Basically the JR Group companies are moving transit region commute pass goalposts slightly inside their respective fare regions. The TOICA region is expanding slightly to include boarder stations: Atami, Kozu (JR East/JR Central) and Maibara (JR Central/JR West). ICOCA is expanding to include Kameyama (JR Central/JR West). For Suica users the new rules mean Suica cross region commuter passes work for transit into the TOICA fare region, and vice versa for TOICA commuter cross region passes in the Suica fare region.

In theory this should not be very difficult to do as commuter passes are commute plans attached to a transit card with an ID number but the press release suggests some transit card architecture differences: (1) the 200 km transit limit for ICOCA and TOICA has been extended to 300 km covering 2 transit IC fare regions, (2) older passes must be reissued on a new card in order to be upgraded. The new issue requirement, along with JR East making the soon to be released ‘Super’ Suica 2 in 1 card available for cross region commuter passes does strongly suggest the new FeliCa SD2 card architecture is used for cross region transit.

The core cross transit regions are Numazu (Shizuoka)~Odawa (Kanagawa) for Suica and TOICA, and Hikone (Shiga)~Ogaki (Gifu) for ICOCA and TOICA. The cross region commuter pass details state that passes cover up to 300 km over 2 regions. Shinkansen commuters gain the most benefit as the new rules are aimed to open up transfer stations to Transit IC cards for Shinkansen commutes. Suica FREX commuter passes cover local Numazu to Mishima transit→Shinkansen to Shinagawa/Tokyo transit→local transit in the Suica/PASMO area. Toica and ICOCA commuters have similar benefits. Regular commuter pass users also gain the ability to ride the Tokkaido Shinkansen area covering the entire Tokyo~Shin Iwakuni for ticketless non-reserve seating, similar to JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen.

There are still big limitations: (1) plastic cards only: no Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica support because ICOCA and Toica are not on mobile yet, (2) regular non-commute pass transit not included: regular transit cards still operate under the current region and 200 km limitation (TOICA and ICOCA fare regions only as the Suica fare region does not have any distance limit).

There’s a new gate installed at Atami station with a blue color. This is a Toica exit gate that accommodates regular Toica (non-commuter pass) transit. Entrance gates have not changed as they already accommodate any Transit IC card including Apple Pay Suica•PASMO. Only the exit gate matters for the fare region calculation (Suica fare or TOICA fare). There is a similar setup at Maibara station for TOICA and ICOCA users. This simple addition of extending the TOICA region and adding TOICA exit gates really shows how much JR Central has left TOICA on the back burner. They could have done this years ago.

An excited TOICA user travels from Numazu to Atami using the new TOICA exit gate.

These changes are baby steps. I hope fare region limitations gradually disappear after the next generation Suica card architecture is in place and shared by all Mutual Use Transit IC Association members with the major players on mobile. These are challenging times for public transit all around the world, Japanese transit companies need to hurry up and seriously cooperate.


JR East Suica station entrance tickets
In a separate service announcement also starting March 13, JR East stations will accept Suica/Transit IC cards, Apple Pay Suica included, for non-transit station entrance ticketing. These cost ¥140 (Kanto district station malls)~¥150 (everywhere else), are good for 2 hours, and cover all Suica gated stations (flap gate stations). Non-JR East stations, JR East stations off the Suica grid and Shinkansen gated areas inside JR East stations are not supported.

The origin of station entrance tickets was for tearful platform farewells seen in old classic movies, but in this era it’s all about enticing people to shop and use facilities in station malls. Ticketless is nice but I wish JR East had also figured out a way to waive the fee with Suica purchases over a certain amount, kinda like free parking vouchers. That would be the ultimate station mall shopping motivation.


UPDATE
New gate entrance/exit layouts are in place at the new Transit IC card region exchange points for Suica, TOICA, ICOCA. A twitter posted the station notice for Maibara, the new exchange point for TOICA~ICOCA commuter passes. There is a ‘TOICA’ gate. A similar gate is in place at Atami station for Suica~TOICA transit. It doesn’t eliminate the Transit IC region boundary limitation but the new arrangement improves the transfer point experience for Shinkansen users, especially smart EX/EX-Press Reserve users.

New JR East Shinkansen eTicket service is a bumpy transition

Three new Suica App system notices spell out the end of old style in-app Shinkansen ticket purchases ending March 13 for the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launching March 14. The switchover is going to be bumpy and clear as mud. A quick list of things to be careful of:

The Bad Ugly

  • Automatic Apple Pay Suica ID# linking is dead
    You have to manually enter your Apple Pay Suica # in the fugly Japanese only Eki-net online site (not the iOS app). Unfortunately copy/paste from Suica App does not work well because the first 2 letters of the string must be entered via pull down menu (macOS) or scroll wheel (iOS) and the entry field cuts off the final 2 digits of the string. This is stupid UI design in the smartphone era.
  • Suica App Shinkansen in app purchases are dead, new eTicket Shinkansen reservations/purchases have to be made online in Eki-net. The current version of iOS Eki-net has not been updated yet and is only for old style ticket reservations and purchases.

The Good

  • All major transit IC cards can be registered for JR East Shinkansen eTickets on the Eki-net site.

The Missing
From a system standpoint it’s clear that locally processed Shinkansen tickets directly downloaded to Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica are over. All JR systems will use the same smartEX approach of soft-linked transit IC card numbers with the eTicket information stored on the cloud.

We are losing Suica App Shinkansen in-app integration, iOS Eki-net app is not plugged in with Shinkansen eTicketing, taken together with backend system changes I guess JR East is breaking eggs to make a new omelette. Will things end end up bigger and better?

JR group cooperation is a classic cat herd, Shinkansen lines might be connected but they don’t appear to be cooperating on a deep level to integrate eTicketing systems, at least not from the outside. This needs to change. The JR East press releases details the Shinkansen eTicket system merger with JR West which operates the Toyama~Ishikawa section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. There are a few minor updates on the JR Central EX system, details on the EX site (Japanese), but nothing that indicates more interoperability.

The challenges of operating a massive ticketing system smoothly while rebuilding it must be huge. It will be a longish migration of many moving pieces and even though we know what is going away, it’s not exactly clear what the finished service will include. Let’s hope JR East is up to the job when the real fun starts on March 14, and stay focused while aggressively fixing the inevitable bugs and problems during the transition.

UPDATE
Right on cue JR East Eki-net and JR West e5489 systems have been experiencing occasional credit card processing problems for Shinkansen ticket purchases. These 2 systems are being integrated for Shinkansen eTicket service.

JR East Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Outage and Refunds

JR East already announced the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket Service in March 2020 and is busy building a new eTicket system that will start April 1, 2020. This is a huge change, glitches are sure to happen along the way.

A big glitch happened yesterday evening May 24 at 18:00: the Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service went down. Some Apple Pay Suica users experienced performance issues with Suica Recharge in Wallet and adding new Suica cards to Wallet during the outage, Mobile Suica users on Android were affected as well. All services were restored as of May 25 5:30 am local Tokyo time.

During the service outage Mobile Suica users on iPhone (Suica App) and Android (Mobile Suica App) who purchased Shinkansen eTickets could not download purchased eTickets to their device, make any online changes to purchased eTickets, or purchase new eTickets.

JR East will refund any Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets that were purchased or could not be used during the service outage. JR East also stresses that any unsuccessful Suica Recharge attempts are not charged to bank cards. See the JR East Support page (Japanese language only) for details and use the link to apply online for a eTicket refund (Japanese language only).

Free Mobile Suica for Everybody in 2020

JR East announced the end of the Mobile Suica ¥1030 annual membership fee for all Android devices on February 26 2020. Mobile Suica is free for Apple Pay users. JR East also announced the end of Symbian OS feature phone support with most devices being cut off from Mobile Suica on February 25 2020, and the rest following on December 22 2020 along with some Android devices.

All of the ‘offed’ devices can still use Suica for transit and purchases but are limited to cash recharge which can be done at station kiosks and any convenience store. Users who want to keep their Mobile Suica account will have to migrate to an eligible Apple or Android device.

JR East is also terminating Mobile Suica Shinkansen e-ticket purchases this year and will replace it with a new service similar to JR Central’s Smart EX. Details should be coming soon.

All in all it looks like JR East is clearing the Mobile Suica deck for the 2021 Super Suica launch.

The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model

It’s about time. Somebody from outside Japan finally took in the big picture of the Japanese Transit Platform model and wrote a business outline of it in English. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and liked what he saw: Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan.

By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.

JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.

Terplan then lists what he thinks are the major components:

  1. Allow rail operators to become real estate developers to capture the value they bring to the stations.
  2. Turn stations into major destinations.
  3. Build over tracks to create new land opportunities.
  4. Dramatic reductions in travel time between cities can lead to major increases in rail’s market share.
  5. Interoperable rail cards (Suica, etc.) are key to making rail easy to use nationwide.

Essential points all, but Terplan doesn’t explain the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces not only integrate (Shinkansen, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Suica, etc.) but also create a whole that is much larger than the sum of parts, and why. Perhaps he is only outlining the model and will return with a deeper analysis later. I certainly hope so because it’s a great transit model for other countries to adapt and adopt. Hong Kong already has a similar system on a smaller scale as does South Korea and Taiwan.

The last component, nationwide interoperable Japan Transit IC prepaid cards for transit and store purchases aka Apple Pay Suica, is the secret sauce binding everything together into a tight slick business model. That is the missing why and it’s just starting: interoperable features like Shinkansen e-ticketing, commuter passes, local loyalty point systems and hosting everything on digital wallets are still weak points. JR East and Sony are busy creating the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format that aims to integrate everything while reducing costs and taking it to the next level.